Over the past several years, numerous books have been published about bottled water and the privatization of water. MediaMouse.org has reviewed two of those, the 2005 book Inside the Bottle and the recently published Global Covenant. Elizabeth Royte’s Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It is the most recent examination of this controversial and ever relevant–especially to those of us living in the Great Lakes region–topic.
In Bottlemania, Royte explores the rise of bottle water over the past twenty years. In 1987, those living in the United States drank 5.7 gallons of bottled water per person, but by 2006, that number had grown to 27.6 gallons per person. Royte traces this increase in consumption to a variety of different causes–increasing marketing that has associated bottled water consumption with status, fear over the safety of public water supplies, and health concerns (soft drink companies Coca-Cola and Pepsi are marketing bottled water as a healthy alternative to soda). In varying capacities, Royte recognizes that all of these reasons–and others–have some legitimacy but ultimately concludes that for her, and presumably the rest of us living in the United States, that tap water is the best choice.
Throughout the course of her book, Royte takes the reader to a number of locations that typify contemporary struggles and debate over bottled water. She brings the reader to the town of Fryeburg, Maine where a debate is raging about water being pumped for sale on the Poland Spring brand and where the possibility of involvement by Nestle–one of the largest bottled water sellers in the world–hangs over the town’s head. She uses the debate in Freyburg to examine critical questions about bottled water such as who profits from it, how does it affect local communities, how does it affect water supplies, and how do corporations relate to local residents. She visits a water treatment plant in Kansas City to explore the state of the country’s water systems and reports that the EPA standards for water leave out several potentially dangerous chemicals. Beyond that, she reports that the nation’s water system is in desperate need of an upgrade.
While Royte traces the rise of bottled water, she also explores the growing public backlash against bottled water. She tells how restaurants are eliminating bottled water from their menus, how cities are no longer purchasing bottled water for city council meetings, and how Chicago has passed a five-cent bottled water tax. At the same time, she tells how organizations such as Corporate Accountability are doing public outreach by offering taste comparisons between tap and bottled water. She also explains how Pepsi–following an organized campaign–agreed to write on its Aquafina labels “Public Water Supply” to inform consumers that it was simply filtered tap water. Royte also tells readers that several people concerned about the safety of tap water are switching to filters instead of bottled water.
Overall, Bottlemania offers a good introduction to many of the issues surrounding bottled water consumption in the United States. While it lacks the international focus that other books on bottled water have, Royte’s more subtle style may appeal to a wider audience than more political books on the topic.
Elizabeth Royte, Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It, (Bloomsbury, 2008).